Gut check

Photo by VIUDeepBay
Photo by VIUDeepBay

Last summer was the fourth year my family spent a weekend at Jewish family camp. It’s a great experience that I look forward to. Campfires, talent show, crafts, folk dancing, learning and building community, all on the shores of Puget Sound.

Last year was all those great things once again. But I also had an unsettling experience that I’ve been thinking about since. One of my boys had a tough time in the kids program. He is a sensitive kid, and the stress and stimulation of camp was more than he could handle. He was agitated and needed help to calm down. The children’s program director—who was also a teacher at a local synagogue’s religious school—stepped in.

The way he handled the situation was spectacularly unhelpful. It was like a textbook of what not to do to de-escalate a kid. Over several conversations, his responses ranged from inappropriate to absurd. He ranted about being in charge. He was self-absorbed. He warned my kindergartner not to “start fights he couldn’t finish.” It quickly became clear to me he did not have the skill or emotional maturity for the job he was doing. I wondered how he could have kept his job as a religious school teacher if this was how he handled conflict with kids and parents.

I recently learned that this program director, Lydia Katz (pronounced L’Dee-ah), is in prison on child molestation charges. He admitted to having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl he taught in religious school. According to news reports, the sexual abuse went on the same summer he spent with us at camp.

When I heard the news I was shocked but not surprised. I started rethinking what I saw and didn’t see, what I did and what I should have done.

The charging papers described Lydia as a “dynamic and charismatic individual who is able to easily engage with youth.” One way of seeing him was as flamboyant, fun, youthful, outside the box. Another was as narcissistic, immature, manipulative.

Sometimes we do exactly the wrong things to protect our kids from exactly the wrong people. A friend’s preschooler came home recently from a “safety” presentation convinced that “strangers will murder you, your sister, your parents, and your dog.”

Telling kids to fear all strangers is a useless message. And the flip side of that message is downright dangerous: you can trust all adults who you “know.” It is not that trusted adults are likely to be abusers, but abusers absolutely are likely to be trusted adults. (90% of teens who are sexually assaulted are hurt by someone they know. That number is even higher for younger victims.)

The world where only strangers and monsters are unsafe is a fantasy. As much as I may wish I could teach my kids a simple rule that would keep them safe, in the real world they need to develop independent judgment about who to trust. I try to talk to them about the complex process I use to gauge whether someone is safe or trustworthy. I explain why I decided to open the door for this stranger, but not another. Why I chose this neighbor’s house as the place they should go if they need help. When I will talk with someone on the street, and when I just keep walking. Even as young kids, they have to make these decisions all the time, and I want us to practice together.

Now we have the chance to reflect and practice as a community. I’m sure I was not the only one who noticed Lydia was immature and had terrible boundaries. What did we think that meant at the time? What do we see now, with the clarity of hindsight?

This is not about assigning blame. This is gut check practice.

It takes practice—even as an adult—in part because our gut reactions are not pure. We all internalize a lot of garbage that can be hard to filter out. My oldest son once wanted to know, “is it racist if I don’t like someone who’s African American?” My first answer was no—assuming you’re not rejecting a person because of their race, you can dislike whoever you want without being racist. Of course that is true, but I told him he also needs to know this: racism can gum up the works of your intuition. Unconscious negative messages can interfere with your gut feeling about the person in front of you. You can develop strong and reliable intuition by being aware of your feelings and talking about them.

Lydia is a mixed race, Black and Jewish, gender bending young man with a large personality and a big dramatic streak. Some of the news coverage made it sound like that was reason enough to be suspicious of him. But being uncomfortable is not enough to identify a problem. You have to figure out if you are uncomfortable for the right reasons. Racism and homophobia can serve as dazzle camouflage—a cloud of confusion that an abuser can use to hide in plain sight.

It is important for kids to know that the adults in this situation know exactly what happened, without euphemisms or ambiguity. Being confused leaves too much room for excuses, minimizing, and victim blaming.

I will tell my kids this: Lydia did not deserve the trust he was given. He had sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl. He sent her “romantic” messages. He used the trust he had as her teacher to his own advantage. He put his own desires ahead of his responsibility not to hurt her. He knew it was wrong and he knew it was illegal. He lied about it and he asked her mother to keep it secret. If you had a feeling that Lydia was not okay, you were right. That gut feeling was right. Remember what that felt like, and practice trusting that feeling. Let’s talk about what you can do when you have that feeling again.

Summer camp

Imagine yourself as a teenager. Now imagine spending three days with your mom at a conference on teen dating violence and healthy relationships.

Yeah…we just did that.

Here’s the set-up: so you know how we haven’t figured out how to end domestic violence? Well, a lot of us are hoping the younger generation will get this whole abuse mess straightened out. The theory is that helping young people develop skills for healthy relationships and healthy sexuality will go a long way towards ending violence.

Only one problem: what do we actually do or say to help teens develop those skills? Lots of folks have been trying lots of things, but the truth is we haven’t figured it all out yet. We sometimes (er, often) don’t even know what to say to our own teens. 

So, we pulled some domestic violence advocates and their kids together for a little summer camp.

Three days later, what can I say? I was part of an incredible experiment. We laughed, we cried, we gave free hugs. My heart is still warmed.

What stood out for me:

  • These moms love their kids. I mean, really love them. And these moms have experienced and seen so much suffering, so much abuse, that all they want to do is create a big bubble to keep their kids safe from harm forever and ever. And…they recognize that they can’t do that. They have fancy theories about violence against women and how pop culture can be a bad influence, and they’re trying hard to talk about all this in a way that’ll actually help their kids.
  • Teens, on the other hand, get it (for the most part). They understand the difference between abusive, oppressive behavior in video games and TV shows vs. how humans are supposed to treat one another. And they don’t want to act like jerks. But they do want to have fun, and they don’t want to spend all day talking about violence. A little conversation about these topics goes a long way with teens.

Now I’m back in my office with the happy realization that teens are already on board for doing violence prevention work―and the even better news is that they’re hipper, more creative, and more tech savvy than we are. They will take the baton and run with it. It’s up to us to pass it to them, even if we feel worried about letting go.